After the Fire: the Chicago Brickmakers

Chicago in Flames
Chicago in flames: Scene at Randolph Street Bridge. Lithograph from Currier & Ives. (Image from Library of Congress Digital Collections.)

Chicago, October 8, 1871. Fire!

On the evening of Sunday, October 8, 1871, a fire breaks out in Chicago, just to the southwest of the city’s center. It had been a dry fall, and the fire quickly spread. Over the next 30 hours, the central area of the city burned, spreading across roughly 3.3 square miles of the city, leaving over 100,000 people (1/3 of the city) homeless, and about 300 people dead. Much of the city was left smoldering in ashes and rubble. The fire was known as The Great Chicago Fire, and today marks the 150th anniversary of the blaze.

In 1871, my 3rd great-grandfather, Johann Adolph Wilhelm Mueller, was a brickmaker in Lake View, and had owned his own brickyard for about six years. While it is a populous Chicago neighborhood now, at that time, Lake View was a rural township just north of Chicago city limits, with about 2,000 residents, and was known for its celery fields and emerging brickyards. Thomas Moulding had established the first brickyard in the township in 1863 on Southport Ave., and started using the clay along the Chicago River to make bricks. Very soon, others, mostly Germans like my 3rd great-grandfather, set up brickyards nearby. After the Great Chicago Fire, their bricks literally helped rebuild the ravaged city. This is the story of my brick-making ancestors.

Johann Adolph Wilhelm Mueller* was born in 1833 in Mecklenburg, Germany, and arrived in Chicago in about 1856 with his wife Marie Beckmann. According to The History of Cook County, Illinois (1884), Johann Wilhelm “worked at the manufacture of bricks with Edward Harland for some eight or nine years, in 1865 coming to Lake View Township and starting a brick-yard.” Edward Harland was an Englishman who was an early and successful brickmaker in Chicago. In the 1860’s, Thomas Moulding, Edward Harland, Johann Mueller, and several others relocated to Lake View to open brickyards there. At the time of the Great Chicago Fire, Johann was manufacturing bricks at a small brickyard in Lake View Township (exact address unknown) and lived nearby, in a neighborhood surrounded by other brickmakers, including his neighbor Thomas Moulding.

The Great Chicago Fire

Unfortunately, no family stories survive about our family’s experience during the Great Fire. Were they afraid for their homes and their lives? Could they see the fire from their home? Were they able to take in or care for any of the people who were fleeing the fire? Did they volunteer to help clean up in the aftermath of the fire? Did they know anyone affected by the fire, including any other family members or business associates? What did they witness in the days after the Fire? I’m afraid I won’t know the answers to these questions.

Photo of ruins of the Chicago Fire
The city lay in ruins, but would quickly rebuild. This photo shows a northside neighborhood that was burned. (Image from Chicago History Museum, via WTTW.)

Although there are no surviving accounts from my own family, their experience was likely very similar to that of their Lake View neighbors. The residents of Lake View likely heard about the fire late Sunday night or Monday morning as Chicagoans were escaping the city and the newspapers reported on the blaze. By the second day of the fire, the great blaze had spread dangerously close to their homes in Lake View. In its last hours, the blaze had reached the northern edge of Chicago at Fullerton Ave., destroying the homes of Dr. John H. Foster and John Huck before dying out. A light rain in the early morning hours on Tuesday helped extinguish the flames. Living about a mile and a half from the northern edge of the fire, the Muellers would have been able to see the smoke from their house, and probably also the flames. Thousands of residents fled the city to the north to take refuge in Lincoln Park and the Lake View area.

Arthur M. Kinzie wrote about those in Lake View who escaped the flames saying, “We saw thousands encamped in Lincoln Park, each group surrounded by the few household effects they had been able to save and transport to that place. […] The neighboring woods [of John Hunter’s Graceland home] contained a goodly number of outcasts, and the street cars, which had been run up there for safety, made a comfortable shelter for many. A number of the inhabitants of that vicinity were at work with plows and spades, digging trenches and ditches to prevent the fire from passing through Wright’s Woods. During the evening [of Monday Oct. 9] the prairie to the west of us took fire, and we began to think that, after all, the lake would be the only sure refuge from the devouring element. That fire, however, shortly burned itself out, which relieved our minds very much.” (Andreas, History of Chicago, p. 746)

Chicago seemed devastated. “It was the completeness of the wreck; the total desolation which met the eye on every hand; the utter blankness of what had a few hours before been so full of life, of associations, of aspirations, of all things which kept the mind of a Chicagoan so constantly driven.” (Colbert, p. 390)

Rebuilding Chicago, Oct. 1871
“Rebuilding Chicago, Oct. 1871,” Lithograph by Rufus Blanchard. Notice the stack of bricks on the left side of the image. The caption reads, “The ruins of the great fire of Oct. 9th, were still smouldering, as the persistent and not to be discouraged citizens of that vast city came forward to clean up and rebuild. It was no question when – work began immediately, and many thousand laborers were everywhere busy removing rubbish and clearing the foundations. More than fifty thousand loads of waste material were deposited in the Lake, only one day following the great conflagration, showing energy and spirit unparalleled. New buildings are going up every day, and no doubt Chicago will soon again astonish the world, by its wonderful and almost instantaneous reproduction.” (Image from Chicago History Museum.)

Rebuilding the City, Brick by Brick

The city was in ashes, but it would recover. The spirit of Chicago was not broken. Even within days of the fire, the city was ready to rebuild. Rebuilding the city of Chicago after the Great Fire required a huge supply of building supplies, including lumber, brick, and stone. Brick and other noncombustible materials, such as steel, became preferred building materials after the implementation of fire-proof building codes in the city. According to Thomas Leslie, because brick was made sturdy and resilient by burning it in fire kilns, it was one of the most fireproof of all building materials available in the 19th century. Brickyards such as Johann Wilhelm Mueller’s were suddenly in high production, nearly doubling the number of bricks produced in the Chicago area in the year following the fire.

A Chicago Tribune article from 1912 remarked:

Ever since the great fire of 1871, Chicago building has been increasingly of brick, stone, concrete, and terra cotta. […] The new Chicago is being built mostly of itself. The clay that makes the products used in the loftiest buildings is the clay dug from the mud of the territory embraced by what is called the Chicago district. The sky line that rises above Michigan avenue is simply a pleasingly modified form of clay like that deposited in the made land a few hundred feet to the east.

Johann’s brickyard made a kind of brick called Chicago Common Bricks, made from clay that was dug from the area along the Chicago River. (Learn more about them here.) Naturally occurring clay deposits along the river bed, starting about 18-24 inches beneath the topsoil, was ideal raw material for making bricks. The bluish clay, speckled with limestone pebbles and other debris, was deposited by receding glaciers thousands of years ago. When fired in a kiln, the clay produces bricks in a variety of colors, from salmon to yellowish shades. Each brick weighs about four pounds.

Huge and deep clay pits were dug at the back of each brickyard, where the raw clay was mixed with water until it reached a workable consistency and was uniform. Bricks cannot be formed when the nights are below freezing, so the brickyards were primarily only operating from May to November. When not in use, the large pits would sometimes fill with water, and would be used as swimming holes for the children in the summer, and ice-making ponds in the winter. Drury explained, “During the winter months many of the clayholes supplied ice, and this was stored in sawdust-filled ice houses and sold during the hot summer months.” Unlike some larger brickyards that had machines that formed and molded the clay into bricks, the bricks made in Johann Mueller’s brickyard were formed by hand.

In an article about the brick industry in Chicago, Thomas Leslie described the whole process:

Clay fields had to be tended by turning and spading in the season prior to actual digging; this had the effect of draining excess water and providing relatively solid material. Digging itself was a back-breaking chore, with an estimated sixty-four cubic feet being required for a single thousand bricks. Raw clay was taken to large pits, where fresh water was added back to the clay to achieve a workable consistency and the resulting ‘mud’ was stirred mechanically until it was uniform. ‘Mud-wheelers’ then took barrows of the mixture to sanded tables, where brickmakers proper rolled out rough quantities of individual bricks and forced them into a mold, slicing off the excess mud with a piano wire. Wet bricks were then dried [by the sun] before being stacked into kilns, […] within which a constantly stoked fire would not only dry the clay, but also fire it, rendering it monolithic and water-resistant. (Leslie, p. 72)

The Brick Making Process
The Brick Making Process, as shown in the Scientific American Journal, Nov. 27, 1886. (View image source here.)

Each brickyard had long sheds with kilns inside at the front of the yard. These kilns would fire the bricks for up to 60 hours at temperatures between 1,500 and 2,000 degrees. This extreme heat causes the minerals in the clay to fuse together and become very strong. On days when the kilns were operating, thick fumes and smoke would fill the air. Once the bricks were fired in the kilns, they were ready to be sorted and sold, and to be built into the newly rebuilt buildings of Chicago.

The Miller Brick Yard

Around 1877, Johann Mueller partnered with Ferdinand Heimann to run a brickyard on the west side of Southport Ave. near Diversey Ave. In 1880, according to the manufacturing schedule for the census, the “Miller & Hyman” brick company (names are sometimes anglicized in the census and city directories) had $10,000 capital invested in the business, and all their business materials are valued at $2,000. In the year of 1880, they made 1,500,000 common bricks at a value of $8,250. By 1881, the brickyard was moved to its permanent location, on the northwest corner of Diversey & Ashland avenues, and was owned by Johann’s son, William A. Miller. At its largest in 1894, the brickyard covered about 8 acres, and had two kiln sheds. The Mueller families lived in small frame houses on the brickyard property, or lived nearby. At the time, the entire area was canvassed with brickyards, with only a few houses and other structures in between.

Most of the workers who worked at the brickyard lived nearby. Drury explained, “Not too far from the big sheds and the deep pits were the modest cottages of the brick moulders, most of whom learned their trade in the south of Germany.” In 1880, Johann’s brickyard employed 20-24 people, and the workers worked 8 hours a day for 6 months out of the year, and earned about $1.50 (for basic labor) to $2.50 (for skilled labor) a day. Although not indicated on the census, the Mueller brickyard employed many recent immigrants, mainly Poles, and did regularly employ women and children to work certain jobs. Many other brickyards in the area also employed male workers to dig, mix, and form the clay into bricks, and women and children to do the finishing work. In 1890, during a strike of brick workers and other laborers, women and children were still found working in the Mueller brickyard. An article describes their work:

The big brickyard of William Miller, on Ashland avenue, above Diversey street, presented a novel scene yesterday. The work of mixing the clay and molding it into the forms of bricks had been done, but the molders and burners had left the yard. In the center of the vast spread of damp clay stood a baby carriage. Within it was a babe cooing in the sun. Kneeling on the ground near by was a woman actively engaged in “hacking” bricks. “Hacking” is the technical idiom used by brickmakers to describe the lifting of bricks from their flat positions and setting them upon their sides, one above the other, three bricks high. The woman worked with great rapidity. Not far off was a little bare-headed girl of 6 or 7 years doing the same kind of work, but she did not work steadily, as every few moments she would run back to her mamma and show her some piece of dirt that seemed to her to be particularly pretty. A few rows away a pretty girl of 16 was “hacking” bricks, a boy still younger assisting her. To the extreme left of the yard was the bent form of an old woman. She was also at work. Away off in the corner two horses plodded patiently around a pit of clay, drawing after them a huge wheel, which ground up and mixed the clay. Seated upon the extended axle of the wheel to which the horses were hitched was a little lass dressed in bright colors, with her hair flowing down her back. She was sitting with her back to the horses. If the beasts halted in their monotonous journey she would turn around and ply them with a long buggy whip and in her shrill voice command them to proceed. […] They get 12 cents a thousand bricks for “hacking.”

from “While the Men Lounge,” Chicago Tribune, 24 Apr 1890.

Woman bending down to turn bricks
A woman at work in Miller’s brick yard. (Image from “Women Turn Bricks.”) 

A critical news article in 1895 about William’s brickyard describes how the bricks were made, and who he employed, which included women and children:

No one connected with the industry denies that women work in the yards, but they say it is not true that they either dig clay or make brick. Their work is mostly what is technically called “hacking” the brick. This consists of turning the bricks over and piling them up in rows. It does not sound like very hard work, but when it comes to either stacking or turning over 30,000 bricks it will be seen that the task would tax the back of many a man. Most of the rough labor in the yards is done by Poles, and it is said this is mostly the race which allows its women to work in the yards. Contrary to expectation, it is neither widows nor single women who do the work, but the wives and mothers of families who labor in the yards right beside their husbands. […]

The women, for their work, are paid $6 a week. The children get $3 – or rather their parents get it. Owing to the hours in the yards the school inspectors can do nothing, because most of the children attend afternoon school. Work at the brickyards begins at 3:30 or 4 o’clock in the morning and is over when the sun gets hot – about 10 o’clock. Then the little children can go and play or go to school. The mothers can go to their housework. They have earned a dollar and a half. […]

The only woman found working was in the yards of William Miller at Diversey and Ashland avenues. She was a stout, motherly appearing Pole, and her three children and her husband were helping her. The children were busy turning bricks over to the sun, while their parents stacked them in layers. A policeman volunteered the information that the daily output of the yards was 50,000 bricks, and that the five people would handle them all before 3 o’clock. None of them spoke any English.

from “Women Turn Bricks,” Chicago Tribune, 7 May 1895.

Rebuilding the city began immediately, but wasn’t completely rebuilt until the early 1880’s. During the building boom after the Great Fire, Johann Wilhelm Mueller would continue working at the brickyard, bringing his two sons William A. and Albert into the business when they were old enough. In 1879, Johann’s health began failing, and William took over primarily management from his father. Johann Wilhelm Mueller passed away on April 29, 1880. The family kept the brickyard going after his death, with their mother Marie as the owner, William as the manager, and Albert (my 2nd great-grandfather) as a teamster.

The brickyard was an all-encompassing family business. Johann and Marie Mueller’s children all married into families connected to the brick or construction industry. Their daughter Mary married William Schlake in 1887, a teacher at St. Luke’s Evangelical School, who would later start a brickyard of his own and become the President of the Illinois Brick Company. (In about the same year, they would built a stately brick manor house at the corner of Ashland and Diversey, in the corner of the brickyard.) In 1882, William married Alvina Tille, the daughter of Henry Tille who owned a neighboring brickyard at Diversey and Ashland. In 1897, Albert married my 2nd great-grandmother Louise Nahrstaedt, the daughter of Ludwig Nahrstaedt, a German teamster for a lumber company.

1894 map of William Miller's brickyard
William Miller’s brickyard at its largest, at the corner of Diversey Ave. and N. Ashland Ave. (Image source: 1894 Sanborn map, from Library of Congress)

The Disappearance of the Lake View Brickyards

Business was booming for the Mueller brickyard, but tough times were ahead. Wages for brickmakers at the yards were quite low, and strikes, negotiations with unions, and labor disputes were common at the brickyards in the 1880s and 1890s. Also, great strides in brick-making manufacturing in the 1880s and 1890s phased out making brick by hand in small yards, and greatly increased the output of larger establishments. The small brickyards in Lakeview were also quickly running out of clay. Gradually, all of the brickyards in Lakeview closed, and the manufacturers moved elsewhere. John Drury wrote about the end of the Lakeview brickyards: “As the clay deposits were exhausted, the brick companies moved northward along the river to newer fields. Eventually, the abandoned clayholes were filled in and, on reaching surface level, were opened to real estate development.” The clay pits, often thirty or forty feet deep, were often filled in with garbage, causing a temporary health hazard and terrible stench until they were covered over. It is unknown whether the Miller clay pits were filled with garbage or dirt, but the clay pits of the Lembke brickyard across the street were filled with garbage from the city.

"The Garbage Dump at Diversey Street and Ashland Avenue."
“The Garbage Dump at Diversey Street and Ashland Avenue.” located across the street from the Miller brickyard, at the old brickyard of John Lembke. His clay pits were a garbage dump for several years around 1895. Old clay pits from the brickyards were filled in with garbage, sand, or soil. (Image source: Chicago Tribune, 23 July 1895, p. 1)

Mueller-Nahrstaedt wedding, 1897

The Mueller brickyard remained in business until about 1896-1897, when the clay pits abandoned, and likely filled in with garbage from the city. William Miller closed his brickyard, and moved away from Lake View to work at brickyards in other parts of the city shortly after. In 1897, Albert Mueller built his house at 1618 Diversey Ave. as a wedding present for his wife. (Their wedding photo is on the right.) The rest of the property was later subdivided and sold, and more houses soon were built on the land, and Albert Mueller and William Schlake’s houses were surrounded by neighbors. 

William Schlake and Albert Mueller remained in Lakeview, but stayed active in the brickmaking industry. The Harms-Schlake brickyard was consolidated into the Illinois Brick Company in 1900, and William Schlake became an important member of the corporation. He was the founding secretary from 1900 to 1909, and then was President of the Illinois Brick Company from 1909 to 1937. He also served as Alderman of the 26th Ward of Chicago for three terms from 1894-1900, and was President of the Common Brick Manufacturers Association from 1918-1921 and 1925-1929. Albert Mueller remained involved in the brick manufacturing industry as a teamster, and later a foreman and driver at Illinois Brick Company for some time. He retired from active work in the industry “many years” before his death in 1950.

John Drury, in a news column written many years later, reminisced about the brickyards on the north side:

It was William Schlake and other pioneer North Side brickmakers, among them Daniel Blaul, who dug the pits along the north branch of the river and supplied the bricks for the building of a bigger and better – and more fire-resistant – Chicago than existed before the Great Fire. They baked a type of brick that became known throughout the building world as “Chicago common.” In the course of time there were so many brickyards along the north branch that the district came to be known as “Bricktown.”

The Schlake manor no longer exists, but Albert Mueller’s house at 1618 Diversey Ave. is still standing. The Mueller brickyard, along with all the other old brickyards of Lake View, have all disappeared and have been absorbed into the city of Chicago. All that remains of those old brickyards are the bricks themselves — the Chicago Common Bricks, still supporting the brick buildings of Chicago.

Timeline of the Mueller family and their brickyards:

1856: Johann Wilhelm Mueller arrives in Chicago with his wife Marie (Beckmann) Mueller, having just immigrated from Mecklenburg, Germany.

1856-1865: Johann Wilhelm Mueller learned the Chicago brick trade by working at Edward Harland’s brickyard in Chicago.

1859: William Adolph Mueller, son of Johann Wilhelm and Marie Mueller, is born on February 11, 1859 in Chicago.

1865: Johann Wilhelm Mueller establishes his own brick yard in Lake View Township (exact location unknown).

1868: Mary Friedericka Johanna Mueller, daughter of Johann Wilhelm and Marie Mueller, is born on July 1, 1868 in Lake View.

1871: The Great Chicago Fire devastates the city from October 8-10. Johann Wilhelm’s brickyard surely helps contribute to the rebuilding, which begins immediately.

1873: Albert Carl Mueller, the son of Johann Wilhelm and Marie Mueller, is born on March 31, 1873 in Lake View.

1877: Johann Wilhelm Mueller partners with Ferdinand Heimann to establish Miller & Heimann brickyard, located at Southport Ave. near Diversey Ave. Johann lives on the west side of Perry near Diversey.

1879: Johann Wilhelm’s health begins to fail, and his son William A. takes over management of the business.

1880: Miller & Hyman appear in the 1880 Census special schedule for manufacturing – brick making.

1880: Johann Wilhelm Mueller passes away on April 29 in Lake View.

1881: In approximately this year, the Mueller brickyard is moved to the northwest corner of Diversey and N. Ashland Avenues (1465 N. Ashland Ave.), which was the previous location of the Lembke & Tille brickyard.

1882: William Mueller marries Alvina Tille, the daughter of a neighboring brickmaker on November 12, 1882.

1884: The southern part of the brickyard, along Diversey Ave., is subdivided.

1887: Mary Mueller marries William E. Schlake, a teacher, on March 19, 1887.

abt 1887: William Schlake builds a brick manor house at the corner of Ashland and Diversey. Original address was 1465 N. Ashland Ave., Lake View. After the city of Chicago renumbered the streets in 1909-1910, the new address is 1600 Diversey Ave. 

1889: Lake View is annexed into the city of Chicago, and the Mueller family’s home is now considered Chicago. As a neighborhood in Chicago, the name was changed slightly to “Lakeview.”

1890: William Schlake decides to leave teaching and “embark in the manufacture of brick on a moderate scale, and he did well,” (Burquest, Sidelights).

1892: In approximately this year, William Schlake partners with neighboring brickmaker, Charles Harms, to form the Harms-Schlake Brick Co. Their offices are at the corner of Ashland and Diversey (probably at William Schlake’s residence), and their brickyard is at Grace Street near Western Ave.

1896-1897: William A. Miller closes the Mueller Brick Yard at Diversey & Ashland. William and his family move to different parts of the city so he can work at other brickyards.

1897: Albert Mueller marries Louise Nahrstaedt on December 19, 1897 at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. He builds a frame house at 738 Diversey Ave. in the summer of 1897 as a wedding present for his bride. (After 1909, address of the house is 1618 Diversey Ave.)

1900: Illinois Brick Company is organized in Chicago. Of the some 40 brickyards operating in Chicago at the time, 31 of them are consolidated into the Illinois Brick Company. Among them is the Harms-Schlake Brick Company. William Schlake is named secretary of the organization.

1909-1937: William Schlake is president of the Illinois Brick Company. In 1937, he is named chairman of the board, and upon his death was succeeded by his son, William F. Schlake.

1910: Marie Beckmann Mueller passes away on January 29, 1910 at the age of 75.

abt 1918: William A. Mueller leaves the brickmaking business, and begins working for the railroad industry for the next 11 years.

1935: Mary Mueller Schlake dies at age 67 on October 20, 1935, in Chicago.

1937: William A. Mueller dies at the age of 78 on September 2, 1937, in Cook County, Illinois.

1940: William Schlake dies at age 76 on May 5, 1940, in his winter home in Miami.

1950: Albert Mueller dies at the age of 76 on March 7, 1950 in Chicago.


* Johann Adolph Wilhelm Mueller was also known as Johann A.W. Mueller, William Mueller or William Miller; I’ll use Johann Wilhelm to avoid confusion with his son, Wilhelm Adolph Mueller, who went by William A. Miller.

* I often refer to the family’s brickyard as the “Mueller brickyard,” but it is sometimes called “Miller brickyard” or “William Miller’s brickyard” in newspaper articles or other records of the time. 

* Johann Wilhelm and his son Albert kept the spelling of their last names as Mueller. Johann’s other son, William, spelled his last name Miller as an adult. 


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One thought on “After the Fire: the Chicago Brickmakers

  1. I have been trying to find more info about our Bricks off and on, Thank you for the useful source info! I’ve found some over the past couple years, but am in search of some of the Thomas face bricks to patch areas, and ran across this.


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